Singing and dancing in the rain: Adam Mars-Jones considers John Greyson's Zero Patience, a didactic 'movie musical about Aids'

Click to follow
John Greyson's Zero Patience bills itself with crazy bravery as 'a movie musical about Aids', and sometimes even lives up to the dizzy daring of that phrase. Greyson is both a radical and a reactionary film- maker, radical in his politics, reactionary in the sense that he is trying to undo the damage done by other films, notably the television adaptation of Randy Shilts's book, And the Band Played On, which notoriously offered the world a new scapegoat in the shape of 'Patient Zero' - a named person (Gaetan Dugas), supposedly responsible for bringing HIV to the northern hemisphere. Less directly, Greyson seeks to correct the Hollywood tendency to sanitise Aids stories by taking out, even in a quality product like Philadelphia, awkward little items like politics and sex.

Greyson's conceit is that the Victorian traveller, translator and sexologist Sir Richard Francis Burton is alive and well, and working on an exhibit on contagious diseases for a natural history museum in Canada. Also alive in some limbo state is the Dugas figure, here named Zero, wandering invisibly through his old haunts. When the paths of these two symbolic figures cross, it turns out that Burton is the only person able to see Zero.

Burton serves Greyson's purposes by representing a science that was progressive in its day, but has been forced by the passage of time to drop the veil of objectivity. Burton's translation of The Arabian Nights provides a tenuous connection to the Zero character, viewed as a sort of Scheherazade, doomed to the second death of tabloid demonisation unless somebody is willing to tell

his story.

Zero Patience is a dramatised documentary in the true sense; that is, not the realistic staging of a true story but an attempt to present an argument in the form of an imaginary narrative. The disadvantages of this should be clear from the word go: when everything represents something (and minor characters in the film tend to have silly names like Dr Placebo) then nothing is anything, and no one is anyone. In any case, the 'Yes' we give to an argument successfully mounted is much smaller and crisper than the assent we give to a work of art that engages us.

Songs in a conventional musical elevate and generalise the emotions of the characters; but in Zero Patience they are most often didactic - bits of agitprop in cabaret form. They tell us to abandon the culture of certainty, or to explore anal eroticism, or to get lots of sleep so as to conserve our immune systems. What is missing from the film is anything which pulls us in another direction: away from issues, or perhaps simply towards the individual lives where issues are experienced before they are analysed. Even in a routine as witty and well-delivered as the Empowerment Drill, where health tips for the HIV-positive are presented in the form of a safety routine on TWA airlines, there is a sense that we are being instructed in hope by a director unwilling to confront despair.

Greyson's point of view is not only that of a gay activist in a homophobic world but also a Canadian in a world that equates North America with the United States except on special occasions. One of those occasions turned out to be the scapegoating of a Canadian airline steward - better yet, a French-Canadian airline steward - as Patient Zero. Greyson's wry sense of Canadian identity is the most enjoyable thing in the film - the way radio news broadcasts, when they aren't discussing HIV, are solely concerned with the doings of the national synchronised swimming team (members of which coincidentally feature in an underwater dance


Glenn Schellenberg's music tends rather towards soft-rock, and no one is guaranteed to come out of the cinema humming. But John Greyson has a flair for putting together something approximating to a production number from the simplest possible materials. On one song, his camera tracks across a row of school desks from above. Children seated at the desks perform minimal actions in sequence, moving an apple to and fro, clapping their hands, drawing straight lines or circles on their pads; yet somehow the eye is satisfied by these visual rhythms so much more modest than dance.

With actors, Greyson's touch is less sure. Both John Robinson as Burton and Normand Fauteux as Zero have their moments, but they're never good at the same time, perhaps because their scenes together are more like dovetailed monologues than actual conversations. In some scenes, Zero wears a series of T-shirts, which replace each other in defiance of continuity, bearing slogans which amplify the dialogue or even stand in for it.

The only absolute area of convergence between this anti-musical and its distant Hollywood inspirations is that its protagonists become lovers. The rather grindingly sex-positive attitude of Zero Patience offers itself as a corrective to the sort of evasive chasteness that was criticised in Philadelphia, but can't really work that way. The reason it seems such a cop-out when the Tom Hanks character in that film kept his hands off that charming lover was that audiences care for him, and would have been correspondingly challenged by the expression of his sexuality. The protagonists of Zero Patience have been set on an amorous collision course by their director from the start, and there is no shock value in their routine fulfilment.

If there's no erotic force to the physical union of these characters, there's no emotional force to their supposed continued attraction. Burton stops being a mouthpiece of bad science and becomes a mouthpiece of sound ideological analysis,

but he's never anything but a mouthpiece.

Greyson seems to have difficulty visualising a middle ground between being a slave of corporate patriarchy and being a heroic radical slut, to judge by a sequence that seems to have strayed in from a John Waters movie, when the Hall of Contagion exhibit is sabotaged by a local Act Up group. The guards change without visible transition from mindless defenders of the status quo to lascivious go-go dancers. Audiences of Zero Patience cannot hope for so complete a transformation.

'Zero Patience' is on at the MGM Piccadilly. For details, see below